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A Look At How Vigilante Justice Shaped Missouri

Author Joe Johnston
Courtesy of the St. Louis County Library

From the Louisiana Purchase through the Civil War, Missouri was shaped by vigilante justice.

“The state was filled with people before there were laws and lawmen,” author and historian Joe Johnston told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Tuesday. Johnston’s latest book, “Necessary Evil: Settling Missouri with a Rope and a Gun,” chronicles the implications of vigilantism in the state.

A Look At How Vigilante Justice Shaped Missouri
"St. Louis on the Air": Joe Johnston discusses Missouri's history of vigilantism.

Missouri was part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. After Louisiana became a state in 1812, the area became the Missouri Territory.  

“At that time, there was one U.S. marshal for the entire Missouri Territory, which was basically from the Mississippi (River) to the Rockies. He had his hands full, that one marshal,” Johnston said.

When Missouri became a state in 1821, the state had two federal marshals, Johnston said.

“The law enforcement was very thin,” he said. “This land was open to squatters. There were all kinds of people living here who didn’t own the land, so when that land was open by the government for settlement, the squatter had the right to buy that property. But squatters didn’t have any money. So if the squatter didn’t have the money and someone else came along and did have it, they could buy that place out from under him. He might have a house and a barn and crops in the ground and a family, so disputes arose. There were just lots of people living here with no laws and no law enforcement for a long time.”

The Mormon Wars

In the 1830s, religion was introduced into the fracas. Joseph Smith founded what would become the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Followers were called Mormons because they followed the Book of Mormon, a companion scripture to the Bible that Smith said he translated and told the story of Jesus appearing to the ancestors of the Native Americans.

In 1831, Smith told his followers the City of Zion would be near Independence, in Jackson County. Mormons flocked to the area, which did not please the county’s other settlers. Tension led to mob violence against the Mormons and in October 1833 they were driven out of Jackson County.

Three years later, the state created a “separate but equal” county for the Mormons; Caldwell County in northwest Missouri was established as a sort of Mormon reservation.

“The Mormons didn’t want to be restricted to their own county,” Johnston said. “They’re Americans — they can live anyplace they want. So that didn’t go over well.

“There was a lot of mistrust. Mormons had their own newspaper, their own stores, their own doctors and blacksmiths and people just began to distrust that and be afraid of that. The governor finally had to call out the militia and it was a very bloody war.”

After attempts at compromise, violence broke out in 1838 when a group of Mormons attacked an authorized militia, believing it was an anti-Mormon mob. Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs, a Jackson County resident during the 1833 rebellion, signed an executive order, also known as the Extermination Order, that said Mormons were to be “treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace.” Three days later, an organized mob launched a surprise attack on a small Mormon community, killing 18 men and boys. Over the next year, thousands of Mormons left Missouri.

Boggs’ Extermination Order was rescinded in 1976.

Bushwackers Versus Jayhawkers

Bushwacking was a form of guerrilla warfare during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Jayhawker was a name given to bands of robbers. But leading up to the Civil War, the terms took on new meanings along the Missouri-Kansas border.

Missouri was a slave state. Kansas was not yet a state, but would be by 1861 and many wanted it to be a free state. Jayhawker became synonymous with abolitionist: Raiders from Kansas, would cross into Missouri and free slaves. Raiders from Missouri, the bushwackers, would cross into Kansas and capture former slaves. Both sides looted from civilians along the way.

“Bushwackers would be people who were sympathetic to the south (and) would wear captured Union uniforms,” Johnston said. “This is really what characterized Missouri during the Civil War: People didn’t know who to trust. They might not have been sure which side their neighbors favored. They might not know when someone rode into the yard wearing a uniform, they didn’t really know if that person was part of that army or not.”

During the Civil War, Missourians also moved to take matters into their own hands.

“We were under martial law during the entire Civil War, so the army would issue orders,” Johnston said. “One of the orders that was issued was that the property of southern sympathizers, which could be used by the southern army, could be seized. So people just said ‘This is great. My neighbors are sympathetic to the south. I’m going to take it from them and give it to the army.’ ”

As expected, those efforts often were met with mixed results. “The army could do it, but civilians could not,” Johnston said.

Vendettas, Violence and Vengeance

While vigilante justice may have been swift, it also often left unanswered questions.

“It was very short on investigation, very short on evidence,” Johnston said. “So a lot of times, a crime might be punished, or a string of crimes, and nobody really knows for sure. They were never really sure did we get the right guy? Did we get all of the right guys?”

Lynchings were common in mob justice, not only as a means of death but also to try to get information.

“This happened to Jesse James’ father when some Union militia came to the James farm,” Johnston said. “These militiamen put a rope around his neck and hauled him up to a tree and then let him down to get some information out of him. They would do this repeatedly until a man finally told what he knew or died. Or, as in the case of Jesse James’ stepfather, he had brain damage from being deprived of oxygen.”

Beatings, often with ropes or sticks, were not uncommon, and there were the old-West style shootouts.

This type of justice also often led to ongoing feuds, some lasting years after the original act.

“Sometimes a mob would start out with something well-intentioned,” Johnston said. “One thing you have to say about vigilantes is golly, this guy deserved to be punished. The law wasn’t taking care of it so the people took care of it, and that probably saved someone else from being a victim.

“But in almost every case, there was going to be vengeance the other way. Violence always led to more violence.”

Related Event

"Necessary Evil: Settling Missouri with a Rope and a Gun" discussion and book signing

  • When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014
  • Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters Auditorium, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis
  • More information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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